Lakshmi Balachandra couldn’t have fled from school faster growing up. The thought of following in her father’s academic footsteps and becoming a professor never appealed to her. She was ready for a career in medicine—“I’m Indian. It’s the natural progression of things.”—until she realized her science skills were sub par.
Then there was her stint in environmental studies, before she made the move to take over her mother’s toy store, sign up for improv classes, enter venture capital, go to business school, work at a business school and become an entrepreneurship professor at Babson.
Yes, a professor.
“I mean, if you had asked me when I was in college if I would be a professor, I would have said ‘No way,’” Balachandra says, reiterating her youthful disdain for PhDs.
Balachandra’s first job out of the University of Chicago was working unpaid for a recycling consulting company here in Boston, bringing her back to her hometown of Needham. The job came at a time when Massachusetts had “started enacting a lot of laws enforcing recycling,” according to Balachandra, who says she was visiting big name brands like Staples and Fidelity and advising them on how to retrain their cleaning crews. After her boss poured all of his money into an accompanying, failing nonprofit, however, she realized she would never get paid.
She considered setting up her own consulting business, until her father suggested she buy her mother’s toy store. After all, her mother hated the cold and was ready to move to California. “I had other dreams of being on ‘Saturday Night Live’ some day,” Balachandra admits, and she knew a move to California would get her one step closer to the stage. So, the family sold both Massachusetts stores and used the proceeds to fund a shop on the West Coast.
After six months, Balachandra had the store up and running, thanks to the help of a friend from high school who managed all public relations. The store eventually caught on. Balachandra even hired a few new employees. But, it didn’t take long for her to grow bored.
“I was so interested in the startup phase, but kind of bored running the business,” she says, opting to work in venture capital instead so she could stay in the startup phase.
She eventually moved back to Boston and found herself knocking on a door at Citizens Bank. Luckily, at the best possible time. She was hired to work for their venture fund, and was there for two years before she realized she needed an MBA if she wanted to become a principal. She sent applications to Harvard, Stanford and UCLA—UCLA only because she wanted to get back to Los Angeles to pursue comedy.
During her toy store days, Balachandra had nabbed a spot with an improv group. They rehearsed once a week and held performances every two or three months. And after she wasn’t accepted into any of her desired business schools, she knew now was the time to make her move, despite receiving “a dream job” offer working at a now defunct female venture capital firm designed to fund fellow women.
“I traveled to California anyway,” Balachandra says. “I didn’t have a house, didn’t have a husband, didn’t have kids.”
Yet, savings only get you so far, and after eight months she moved back to Boston to be with her now husband, who was then studying for his PHd at MIT. The female VC firm welcomed her back, and Balachandra says:
Even though I love my job now, I will say that was the best job of my life. It was so empowering, and it felt so important and we were all really close. It was a really good experience. I learned a ton.
Until she was forced to learn a ton at business school. This time, she was accepted into MIT, but she didn’t know what move she wanted to make next. “I didn’t want to go back to a fund if it wasn’t like the fund I was at before,” she says. So, she resorted back to improv.
One of her professors asked her to put together an improv class, tying together comedy and management. The course went so well, it turned into an elective and, eventually, a consulting job. Balachandra taught a class at MIT Sloan for eight years, before spending a year at Northeastern. She now runs a seminar on “improvisation for negotiation” at Harvard Business School, all while teaching at Babson and consulting companies.
“I always had this performance side of me, and I feel very much at home in the classroom,” Balachandra says. “I love that aspect, and I really like the fact of making an impact on students.”
What ties together all of Balachandra’s different work experiences, however, is that when she entered any field, she wanted to know everything about it. “I knew every VC firm in the area, what they looked like, what their investments looked like,” she says.
As Balachandra tells her students: “If you’re not interested to find out more, I’m not convinced you’re interested in that field. … It’s a version of passion.”
Photo Courtesy of Babson